Some quick updates and links to discussions and news related to online copyright infringement:
- Last week, the RIAA announced that it was beginning a new program where it would send alleged offenders a notice before suing them to offer them an early option to settle. This offer is sent to the university or college with the request to forward it on to the alleged offender. Cornell has sent a letter to its students trying to help them understand exactly what is going, how these new letters differ from DMCA takedown notices and other letters, and how Cornell is and is not responding. Some institutions are refusing to send these new letters on their students but others are complying with the RIAA’s request. Discussions are being held at and between many institutions concerning institutions’ legal and ethical obligations with respect to these pre-litigation letters. Should institutions pass on these letter to students in an effort to make themselves neutral? Do institutions have a legal obligation to pass on these letters? Must institutions retain logs as requested by the RIAA? It’s obviously a complicated issue with many ethical, legal, and financial facets.
- Discussion continues about the role of copyright in a digital era. We may not all agree with UC Berkeley’s Larry Downes’ comparison with the Information Revolution to the Industrial Revolution and his assertion that “[Today's] bloody fights are not over natural resources and access to emerging markets but over use and ownership of ideas.” But I do agree with his general premise and I further assert that in this particular instance higher education is being caught in an ugly squeeze between wealthy copyright holders struggling to maintain their grip on…well, anything they can continue to grip (income, market share, cultural influence, political influence, etc.) and a legal system still struggling to come to terms with a new economy that differs significantly from the old (and don’t think the old economy is going away – no, we have to deal with both of them at the same time). Let’s see what our friends in the House Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property (yes, the same subcommittee that hold the campus piracy hearings) have to say in an upcoming hearing focused on reforming part of the Copyright Act “for the Digital Age.” They’ll be examining Section 115, the section that covers compulsory licensing of music, a task very similar to one in which Europe is engaged.
- In preparing for the NASPA/ACPA 2007 Joint Meeting and the activities planned for and by the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community, I skimmed the Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs. This is a relatively simple list of practices modeled after the original 1987 Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Although written before the coming-of-age of Napster and subsequent challenges related to online copyright infringement and reform, I am struck by how the opening sentences of the Introduction describe our current situation: “Today’s context for higher education presents student affairs with many challenges. Among these are new technologies, changing student demographics, demands for greater accountability, concern about the increasing cost of higher education, and criticism of the moral and ethical climate on campuses.”
- New technologies: This is a gimme.
- Changing student demographics: As noted by Cheryl Elzy in testimony before Congress, “The scope of the problem [is] national. It’s worldwide. It’s bigger than we’d first imagined and a significant problem, we think, for higher education. Frankly it’s a problem at all levels of education, including K-12.” The issue is not one of students learning this behavior in colleges and universities. It’s learned behavior they bring with them. While this is not a shift in demographics as some may think of it (race, ethnicity, SES, etc.), I assert that the increase in the number of students comfortable and familiar with technology and thus possessing skills and expectations is a demographic shift. There are interesting questions to ask about how the other more traditional demographic measures and characteristics interact with these emerging characteristics but let’s set those aside for now (but don’t forget those questions! They’re fascinating and important and we’re figuring out the answers.)
- Demands for greater accountability: At the heart of the legislative pressure for institutions to “do something” about this issue is a sense that institutions must be held accountable for what their students are doing with public and educational resources (open question: is there a discernible difference in the pressure being placed on or the reaction of private institutions?). Rightly or wrongly, we’re being held accountable for our perceived inaction and lack of concern and there is a push for us to be held accountable. Even when we (correctly) argue that enforcing someone else’s copyright is not our legal responsibility, law makers reply that they can change the law to make it our legal responsibility.
- Concern about the increasing cost of higher education: Interestingly, this concern is being felt most by institutions and not legislators. It’s an argument we correctly repeat when pressed on this issue: the solutions offered are very expensive. Do we continue to worry about the increasing costs of higher education at the same time we demand institutions purchase costly products and services to enforce someone else’s copyright and subsidize students’ desire for free music and movies? There’s a conflict there and a disconnect that I’m not sure has been fully explored.
- Criticism of the moral and ethical climate on campuses: Even many who do not believe it is not the legal responsibility of colleges and universities to enforce the copyrights of others believe that we have a moral and ethical obligation to dissuade students from violating copyright. I’m not sure there is much room for argument as this is a reasonable belief consistent with the educational mission of most institutions. However, there is room for discussion in how far and in what manner institutions should press this issue as the morality and ethics are certainly not black-and-white, particularly when shady groups like the RIAA become involved.